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The Cultural Prerequisites of Freedom and Prosperity

By 2.14.07

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This essay is the fourth in a ten-part series being published in successive issues of The American Spectator under the general title, "The Pursuit of Liberty: Can the Ideals That Made America Great Provide a Model for the World?"

Also in The American Spectator's Pursuit of Liberty series: James Q. Wilson's "American Exceptionalism," James Kurth's "America's Democratization Projects Abroad, Norman Podhoretz's "A Masterpiece of American Oratory," and Roger Scruton's "The Nation-State and Democracy," with more to come.

American exporters of democracy should never ignore them.

The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

CULTURAL VALUES, BELIEFS, AND ATTITUDES powerfully influence human behavior, and since those cultural attributes are widely shared in a society, they also powerfully influence the political, social, and economic evolution of the society, of the nation. Foreign and domestic policy makers, academics, and World Bank (among other) development specialists are reluctant to confront culture. But the failure to do so can be enormously costly for foreign policy, be it in the abortive imposition of democracy in Iraq or in efforts to accelerate the agonizingly slow pace of development in Africa, much of Latin America, and the Islamic world.

Virtually all the most successful countries in the world today, including those in Western Europe, North America, and East Asia, and Australia and New Zealand, practice democratic capitalism. All these countries have benefited from religions or ethical codes that nurture democratic politics or economic development, or both: Christianity, particularly the Protestant sects; Judaism; and Confucianism. The three share, among other values, the belief that people can influence their destinies and a related emphasis on the future; a high priority for education; the belief that work is good; and celebration of achievement and merit.

These values do not receive comparable emphasis in other religions/cultures, for example Islam and, to some extent, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. Such cultures tend more toward fatalism and focus on the present or the past. They attach lower priority to education -- in the case of the Islamic countries, particularly for women; are ambivalent about the value of work and achievement; and often award status based on family, clan, or class rather than merit. The lag in the movement of these societies toward the goals of democratic governance, social justice, and prosperity enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is in large measure the consequence of their progress-averse value systems.

MOYNIHAN'S OFT-REPEATED aphorism, which underscores the mutability of culture (it's not in the genes), challenges a concept that is at the root of the failure to confront culture: cultural relativism, an anthropological theory popular in the academic world that argues that one culture is not better or worse than any other -- it is merely different. The theory may make people feel good, particularly if they live in poor, misgoverned, unjust countries -- or egalitarian and righteous if they are First World anthropologists who adopt, in whole or in part, a poor, misgoverned, unjust country. But the theory is patently erroneous, at least when it comes to political, economic, and social progress.

Some cultures are prone to democratic politics, while others resist it. In his classic Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville made an observation in the 1830s that is relevant today: "Mexico, as happily situated [geographically] as the Anglo-American Union, adopted these same laws but cannot get used to democratic government. So there must be some other reason, apart from geography and laws, which makes it possible for democracy to rule the United States." For Tocqueville, that reason is culture: "…the habits of the heart… the different notions possessed by men, the various opinions current among them and the sum of ideas that shape mental habits."

Many economists would like to ignore culture. As the former World Bank economist William Easterly, author of The White Man's Burden, wrote in reviewing my 1992 book Who Prospers?, "Maybe there is a lot to be said for the old-fashioned economist's view that people are the same everywhere and will respond to the right economic opportunities and incentives." Easterly's view ignores a salient fact: in multicultural countries where the economic opportunities and incentives are available to all, some ethnic or religious minorities often do much better than majority populations, as in the case of the Chinese minorities in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand -- and the United States. Why has the "Washington Consensus" prescription of free market economics, e.g., fiscal policy discipline, trade liberalization, openness to foreign investment, and privatization, worked well in India and poorly in Latin America? Cultural factors are not the whole explanation, but surely they are relevant.

Alan Greenspan got it right when he said, after the collapse of the Russian economy in 1998-99, "I used to assume that capitalism was human nature… it was not human nature at all, but culture."

If culture matters, then, what are the implications for a foreign policy a fundament of which is, "These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society"? In the long run, Francis Fukuyama argues in The End of History, all human societies will converge on the democratic-capitalist model because it has proven to be the most successful way of harnessing human nature to produce progress. I agree. But what about the short run? What are the chances of consolidating democracy -- not just elections but also the full array of political rights and civil liberties -- in Iraq, an Arab country with no experience with democracy, and with two conflict-prone Islamic sects, Sunni and Shia, and an ethno-linguistic group, the Kurds, seeking autonomy?

To assess the possibilities of a successful promotion of democracy in Iraq by a U.S. occupation, we might start with an assessment of the condition of democracy in Arab countries more generally. The table below [sic] lists (1) Freedom House's 2006 rankings for 15 Arab countries in which 1 is best and 7 worst; and (2) adult literacy rates by gender from the UN Human Development Report 2004.

By contrast, most First World countries are ranked 1 in each column by Freedom House. (Israel is graded 1 for political rights and 2 for civil liberties, overall "free.") While stable democracy may not depend on high levels of female literacy, as India, where female literacy is 48 percent, demonstrates, it must surely be enhanced by literate women, particularly since women play the lead role in child rearing. The data on gender literacy underscore the subordination of women to men in contemporary Islam.

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About the Author

Lawrence E. Harrisonis a senior research fellow and adjunct lecturer at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. He is the author, most recently, of The Central Liberal Truth (Oxford, 2006) and co-editor, with Samuel Huntington, of Culture Matters (Basic Books, 2000).